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If ever you wish to witness the sort of existential panic that Hollywood can inflict upon its denizens, I suggest attending the birthday party of a former child star. Last winter, I found myself at such an event in the Hollywood Hills. It was intimate, populated with the usual species indigenous to such occasions: actors, screenwriters, directors, musicians, models and hangers-on.
“The movie fell apart,” said the actress, as she held court in front of a crackling fire pit on her patio. This particular film was supposed to be an opportunity for her to shed the stigma of the “child star” label. But as projects (and people) in Hollywood so often do, it collapsed. Existential crises are about as common as spray tans in Los Angeles.
As the city twinkled behind the actress that evening, her guests offered advice gleaned from their own experiences of rejection in Hollywood: It wasn’t meant to be. Something else will come along. Things like this take time. Then someone offered this: Have you prayed about this?
I was shocked. You discuss prayer over Jell-O casserole in a church basement in Des Moines, not among hip twentysomethings on the balcony of a modernist two-story in Hollywood. But as it turned out, the actress and many of her closest friends were Christians who attended Reality L.A., the Los Angeles chapter of a surprisingly popular global network of evangelical churches.
At home that night, a cursory Google search revealed that the starlet and her friends were not anomalies. As I learned, every Sunday, Reality L.A. is packed with chic young musicians, actors, creatives and celebrities. (Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato have reportedly attended services.) Beneath the church’s sexy, Instagrammable exterior, however, lies a conservative ethos: nonbelievers are going to hell, abortion is a sin (even in cases of incest and rape), sex is only acceptable after marriage, and homosexuality is forbidden.
How, in famously liberal Hollywood and among statistically progressive millennials, had good old-fashioned evangelism gained popularity? In this context, a church like Reality L.A. seemed like something that could never work. But that evening, as I reflected on the troubled actress and the psychic brutalities inflicted by the entertainment industry, it occurred to me that I had underestimated Hollywood’s biggest product: lost souls.
I set out to study the success of Reality L.A. in hopes of arriving at a fresh understanding of Hollywood’s spiritual deficit. I intended to approach it as I would any other journalistic assignment: with a dispassionate distance. That was the plan. Yet as I spent more time at the church, I found myself questioning the very foundation of my own identity. A period of unexamined crisis in my personal life — which began in the summer of 2014 and extended into the spring of 2017 — came into sharp relief when I was faced with the existential questions raised by the church.
What I never expected was that my own faith would come into question.
It’s Sunday, and I’m going to church. “Don’t turn ex-gay,” my boyfriend half-jokes, as I fret over an appropriately hip ensemble.
The first congregation in the Reality “family of churches” was established in the small oceanside city of Carpinteria, California. In the fall of 2003, Britt Merrick, heir to father Al Merrick’s famed Channel Islands Surfboards, put aside the family business of crafting boards for world-renowned surfers to start a small church. The church, which Merrick named Reality, quickly grew in popularity, attracting parishioners from as far down the coast as Los Angeles.
Soon it became clear that there was a market in Los Angeles for Merrick’s beach-town approach to evangelism. Merrick enlisted Tim Chaddick —a preacher and reformed punk rocker with a similarly youthful approach to scripture — and charged him with seeding what they called a “church plant” in Hollywood in January 2006. The tatted-up Chaddick was a hit among creatives looking for direction in a city that often supplies none, and by 2009, Reality L.A. had grown from a small, devoted prayer group into a church with 1,500 members.
From there, Reality continued to grow, with pastors “planting” additional churches around Los Angeles. In 2015, a team from Reality L.A. founded the Collective Church, followed in 2017 by the Commons L.A. in Westwood. In an era when overall church attendance is on the decline, Reality has defied the statistics, with outposts springing up in cities like Santa Barbara, Ventura, Stockton, San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu, and London. Reality L.A. doesn’t own a physical space of worship; instead, the church rents the auditorium of Helen Bernstein Public High School, located right off Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood.
There are no high schoolers to be found on campus the first day I visit. In their place are attractive twenty and thirtysomethings. It feels like grown-up high school, but one where the cliques are Stepford-nice. I blush as multiple strangers greet me on my way to the auditorium. This is L.A. — we don’t say hello. And yet I find it oddly refreshing to bask in the warmth of their unsolicited kindness.
As I enter the thousand-seat, recently renovated auditorium, Johnny Cash plays over the sound system. With three packed services every Sunday — at 9 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. — Reality L.A. ministers to about 3,000 people per week. I sit down and the house lights dim, as a band walks onto the stage. A dark blue glow hits the group, illuminating the rock musicians’ silhouettes. The guitarist riffs and the audience stands. Some sway gently, others stretch their hands toward the stage. Many people sing along.
Our great redeemer,
Your name is higher than the rising sun.
The style of music could be described as “Imagine Dragons meets Carrie Underwood at the end of a Nicholas Sparks movie.” There is an infectious sentimentality to every melody, with a slight country twang and a Top 40 sheen. Each song has a quiet, plaintive refrain and slowly builds to a surging, anthem-rock finish. After two extended jams, the band quiets and a layperson takes to the lectern to welcome the crowd, collect offerings and make announcements about upcoming events and workshops. Finally, Jeremy Treat, Reality L.A.’s lead pastor as of 2016, when pastor Tim Chaddick moved to England to launch Reality’s London outpost, takes the stage.
Today’s sermon is about love. “Everyone knows that love is the answer, but no one can agree on what love is or how it works,” Treat says. “It’s actually a big debate among today’s leading philosophers: Justin Timberlake asks, for example, ‘Where is the love?’ But Rihanna says, ‘We found love.’”
It’s corny, but it lands: The audience — myself included — laughs. Treat breaks into a goofy grin and proceeds with the confidence of a man who has 1,000 people on his side.
Treat is magnetic. Every centimeter of his well-built, six-foot-two-inch frame seems lit from within. His voice has a slight rasp to it, a sort of reedy tenor, worn down from spreading the word of God over and over again every week. He is ruggedly handsome, with a strong Roman nose and a buzzed haircut. Today he wears skinny jeans, a black fitted tee, a gray blazer, and a pair of crisp white basketball shoes. The shoes seem fitting; Treat possesses the lanky strength and off-court charm of a star basketball player.
He reads from scripture, the famous “God is love” passage from the Gospel of John, which he calls a “grounding for what love means.” Treat’s skill is taking the evangelical’s literal mode of reading the Bible and making it resonate with a modern audience.
“Real love is strong,” Treat says. “Love motivates. We need to hear this because most people think that God motivates with fear. And if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us are driven by fear of failure. And what drives you, what motivates you throughout the day is justifying yourself. You think, ‘I’m somebody. I’m not a failure. My life is not going to amount to nothing.’”
Los Angeles is a town that runs on fear of failure, from the struggling actor to the top studio chief.
Treat’s sermon picks up intensity and passion as he continues.
“Others of you might be driven by a fear of being alone. That’s the worst thing you could imagine. So you put yourself out there; you’re vulnerable. Maybe others are driven by fear of being found out. We have things in our lives that are hidden, that others don’t know. And we work hard to build an image: our filtered lives that we put out in social media. But we’re ultimately driven by this fear of being found out.”
At this point, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience who doesn’t see themselves in Treat’s descriptions. He’s tapped into the darkness in our hearts, and now, he brings it home.
“But with God, we’re not driven by fear. We’re driven by love,” he says with deep reverence. “We try so hard to build our identities through our work, our friends, our accomplishments. But when it comes to identity, there is nothing more foundational than this: When God speaks to you, he calls you beloved. And I don’t care what names, what labels have been placed over you by your past, by your enemies, by your own heart. When God sees you, it’s not your worst failure or your greatest success that defines you. It’s that you are loved by the creator of the universe.”
Treat has accomplished a Christian slam dunk. It’s painful to build our identities through the material world, his sermon says. Wouldn’t you like to start fresh and purge all your neuroses and baggage and shit? Wouldn’t you like to live an authentic life, full of love? Well, there is a simple answer: God.
For the next hour, Treat weaves a compelling narrative, jumping from the Bible to Rihanna to agnostic scholarship to L.A.-bred anxieties back to the Bible. It feels like listening to a brilliant and engaging podcast, albeit one focused on Jesus. This is not boneheaded Bible thumping — Treat encourages his audience to think philosophically while engaging their hearts.
“We’re all searching for answers. Cross-shaped love that originates from God and flows through us—that’s what we need. That’s what is powerful enough to not only change us, but to change the world. Let’s pray together.”
As Treat leads the congregation in prayer, the band plays softly behind him. When he finishes, he steps away from the lectern, and the band crescendos. The lead singer wails in a beautiful tenor.
So pull me a little closer,
hold me a little deeper,
I wanna know your heart.
An androgynous girl with a pixie haircut bursts into tears in front of me. Her friend holds her as she sobs. A man collapses to his knees in the aisle next to me, tears streaming down his upturned face. South Park has parodied the Christian rock scene before, and while it’s hilarious to watch two-dimensional Cartman croon about Jesus, I can assure you that the actual experience is far different.
Chills shoot down my back. To be present is to witness a mass of people simultaneously face their deepest-held suffering. I begin to understand how one could surrender to the rhythms of this particular moment.
I wait for Treat after the service as he greets a parade of parishioners. He works his way through the crowd, chatting with each person for as long as they need. When the last person has been tended to, Treat’s wife — a tall, elegant woman — and their four impossibly adorable daughters swarm him. Treat embraces them, beaming.
He introduces me briefly to his family and then ushers me backstage. “Green room” would be a generous term to describe the space in which we settle — it’s more of a glorified utility closet with a mirror sitting above a shelf dotted with Treat’s personal effects. The walls are white and spare, and a shelving unit in the corner houses plastic crates, wires and lighting instruments. Unlike some of his flashier evangelical peers, Treat is concerned with God, not glamour.
I remark on this fact, contrasting Reality L.A.’s austerity with the Justin Bieber–branded Hillsong, or the “Jesus will make you a million dollars” prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen.
“I like to say we’re not building a brand, we’re proclaiming a name. It’s not about us. We want the only spotlight we have to be shined on Jesus, metaphorically,” Treat says. “We are traditional in our theology and what it means to be a Christian. When people see young Christians gathered in the middle of Hollywood, there’s often an assumption of, ‘Oh, they must have somehow adapted the faith to where this new generation likes it.’ But what we’ve done is contextualize it, not adapt it.”
To those who attend Reality, the Bible is more than a book: It is the guide to living and the answer to literally every question. In the evangelical interpretation, we live in a “fallen world” marred by sin — thanks to Adam and Eve’s appetite for forbidden fruit — and we must deny ourselves the sins of this world in order to follow Christ. Those sins are explicitly laid out in the Bible and rigidly followed by the evangelical interpretation of that text. For this reason, the sociological perspective of the evangelical often clashes with popular liberal perspectives.
For example, social justice is part of Reality’s mission. The church has large and effective outreach programs to fight human trafficking and homelessness both in Los Angeles and around the world. Many churchgoers speak of President Donald Trump with complete disgust (though the church itself does not endorse politicians). But Reality’s understanding of “social justice” does not incorporate all the commonly held tent poles of progressives. The church’s stance is that abortion is a sin, for instance. The Bible, as Reality interprets it, believes that personhood begins at the moment of conception.
“I’m not going to be partisan or use the pulpit to rally a political cause,” Treat says. “The problem with politics is it creates all these false dichotomies: It tries to position a question that says, ‘Do you love immigrants or do you love the unborn?’ I refuse those dichotomies. I want to love the immigrant and the unborn. That’s why I get frustrated with the political setting. When someone talks, you should listen to them, and if you disagree, you can still be respectful. How different would the world be if that happened in the last year?”
Treat practices what he preaches in terms of respectful disagreement. Even as I interrogate his most controversial beliefs, he maintains the same level of gentle listening and kindness. I find myself drawn in by his warmth. Is it possible to like someone who thinks I’m going to hell?
As an out gay man with an active sex life, I am — in the eyes of his church — sinning with my current boyfriend at least twice a week (three if I’m lucky). And so it is with a certain degree of trepidation — and personal vulnerability — that I finally broach the question I’ve been saving for last: What is Reality L.A.’s position on homosexuality?
Treat assures me that he will address my question, but to understand his answer, we need to take a step back. “There are some ways we resonate with our culture,” Treat says. “But Christians are very distinct as a people because we’re shaped by following Jesus. So I should expect to be different than people who aren’t Christians because I’m shaping my life around something totally different.”
This is why speaking with Treat is a destabilizing experience; as the church’s name would imply, debating its members can feel like stepping into an alternate reality. It’s not that we simply disagree on an issue; we possess radically different systems of thought that lead to our thinking about the issue. In this case, it is the very idea of equality.
“We believe every single person is made in the image of God, and therefore we are equal,” Treat says. “It comes down to this question: Where does human dignity come from? Take the handicapped, for example. Christians believe that if someone doesn’t have the ability to contribute to society the same way that other people do, they have just as much dignity, just as much worth. We believe that because they’re made in the image of God. But if you don’t believe that we’ve been given dignity from the outside by God, like Christians believe, then you don’t have the grounds to actually argue equality.”
At this point, I think I’ve caught Treat in a technicality. “But if we’re all created equal in the image of God, doesn’t that include LGBTQ individuals as well?” I ask. “Where did same-sex attraction come from, if not God?”
“We’re born created in God’s image but marred by our sins,” Treat replies. “I believe that everyone is sexually broken. All of us in our sexuality have fallen short of the glory of God. We all have to deny our sexuality. To me, the category is not are you a heterosexual or a homosexual? It’s are you sexually pure? Are you living in God’s design for gender and sexuality in a world tainted by sin?”
In Treat’s view, a homosexual possesses the same amount of dignity as a heterosexual. But just as everyone is deserving of dignity, everyone sins as well. “Same-sex attraction” is a sin just like any other — and we all have to deny our sinful desires to commit adultery, watch porn, have sex before marriage, or sleep with someone of the same sex.
“So, with all this in mind, do gay people actually join the church?” I ask, incredulously.
“Our church is full of people who are attracted to the same sex,” Treat replies. “I always remind people that we follow Jesus, who was, by the way, single. And he was not incomplete; he was deeply satisfied in the Father. We want to be a people who are saying no to weaker desires so we can say yes to greater desires. We are a people who are satisfied in the Lord, and that shapes all aspects of our life.”
At first glance, the church’s stance on homosexuality is far less severe than other fundamentalist alternatives — there is no pressure to become “ex-gay,” and there are no “God Hates Fags” banners. But I suspect that the warm welcome of Reality L.A. has the potential to do more damage than the outward bigotry of the Westboro Baptist Church, for instance. Reality L.A. extends its loving arms with one crucial caveat: Deny your sexuality.
“What would it take to save me?” I ask.
“It’s a preacher’s favorite question,” Treat says with a laugh. “I always say it’s letting go of the grip of your own life to open your hands, to receive from God. And when you put your faith in Christ and make him the Lord of your life, then the Bible says that you’re redeemed and forgiven.”
I can understand the essential appeal of being saved: You are given a new identity. How nice would it be to let go of the grip of your own life? And here is Treat, a compassionate man who can lead you on a path to a whole new existence, if you let him.
Both my parents are ministers. I was never “born again” — that didn’t jive with my family’s brand of Jesus. When I was growing up, my parents were pastors at the United Church of Christ: a modernist, culturally liberal denomination of Christianity where gay marriage is celebrated and abortions will not send you to hell. Though I was never born again, I did, at the age of 13, enter something called confirmation class — a yearlong program where you studied the Bible and made a commitment to live as a Christian. Each of us was assigned an individual mentor, usually a volunteer parent in the church, to guide us on our spiritual path. I got a soccer mom named Marcy who wore too much perfume, had a scary-perfect bob, and in general just freaked me out with her dead-eyed, McMansiony suburbanness. Studying the Bible with Marcy felt like a dreadful chore.
I may not have discovered Jesus at the time, but I did discover Hole’s sophomore album, Live Through This, and Courtney Love had a lot more to say to me than Jesus did. Courtney’s angst got me through the worst of a fat, pimpled puberty, during which I also figured out I was gay. I told my closest friends at school but was terrified to tell my parents.
Eventually, I decided I would come out to them in a letter. I handed it to my mother one day as she dropped me off for school. She gave the closed envelope a curious look before speeding off in her white Mazda. The day was excruciating. I drifted from class to class, absorbing nothing, dreading my mother’s response. When she finally picked me up, she had a bottle of sparkling cider and a card that read, “Be who you are, and life will be profoundly satisfying.” We got home, and my dad hugged me and cried and told me he loved me.
I decided not to tell people at church, and that was the beginning of the end of religion for me. I felt, and my parents agreed, that there was a small-town-mindedness among some of the parishioners — and things might be easier if I avoided telling them. I went off to boarding school the next year and stopped attending church altogether.
The church, which had given me so much life as a child, had ceased to sustain me. But I felt closer to my family than ever. They knew who I was, and they loved me for it. I felt lucky, blessed where other families were cursed. I watched my friends’ families suffer bitter divorces, divided holidays, and alcoholic dads. But not my mine. Mine was different. I didn’t need God — my family fed my soul.
It seemed too good to be true and, as I would discover 19 years later, it was.
“I dated everyone,” Becket Cook recalls with a deep laugh. “I dated every Hollywood studio head. I dated Rufus Wainwright. You name him, I dated him.”
I sit across from Cook at a lunch table in the concrete courtyard of Helen Bernstein High School as Reality L.A.’s second Sunday service kicks off inside. Cook is in his early forties, with a baby face and a strong nose bridged by horn-rimmed glasses. He is well read, well traveled, and — as evidenced by the quote above (and many to come) — well-versed in the most popular of Hollywood pastimes: name dropping. This makes sense, given his profession: Cook is a successful production designer in the fashion industry. In short, Cook presents as “power gay.” A power gay that no longer has sex with men, mind you.
“For me, it’s like the Apostle Paul says: ‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.’ And that’s exactly how I feel — I met the king of the universe, so giving up [gay sex] is nothing to me,” Cook says with unflinching conviction. “I still have a lot of same-sex desire, but I’m willing to deny that and take up my cross and follow Christ. ”
Cook was born to a large Catholic family in Dallas, Texas, the youngest son of eight. His father was a prominent Dallas lawyer, and their family was well provided for. Cook first realized he was gay in elementary school, but it was not until his early teens that he fully came into his sexuality. At the same time, his family’s identity was beginning to shift — though in a decidedly different direction. One Christmas, his brother Damien came home from college a born-again Christian and soon convinced the rest of the family to abandon their Catholic roots and become born again as well. Everyone, that is, except Cook. “There was a whole reformation in my family,” Cook says. “Everyone in my family was born again, except me.”
It was not until after college that Cook summoned the courage to come out to his family. His parents were concerned but ultimately accepting. His siblings were varied in their responses: Some were loving from the start; others were “really bent out of shape.” Eventually, the entire family came around to a degree — but Cook still felt there was a painful disconnect. “Even though they loved me, they just didn’t get me. I always felt this alienation from them.”
In 1993, Cook moved to L.A. to become a writer and actor. “I moved to L.A. to be rich and famous, like everyone who moves to L.A.,” he recalls. “My whole group of friends were writers, actors, producers, directors, musicians. Our whole raison d’être was to make it big in Hollywood and meet the love of your life. All those friends are now the culture makers in Hollywood: Dustin Lance Black and Ryan Murphy and all these people.”
Cook transitioned from actor to production designer and quickly worked his way up within his field. He also burned through a total of five serious relationships, all of which ended in intense heartbreak. Cook says he worshipped what many in Hollywood do — fame, sex, and relationships — and like many before him, he became increasingly disillusioned with those pursuits.
“There was this seminal moment, at Paris Fashion Week in 2009. I was at Stella McCartney’s after-party, sitting with Rachel Zoe and her husband Rodger [Berman], drinking champagne. We were sitting up on a balcony, and everyone was out dancing — the whole fashion world was there. And I remember this weird moment, looking out over the crowd and thinking, ‘This isn’t it. This has sustained me for a long time, but this is not doing anything for me anymore. This is not the meaning of life.’”
Realizing that a Stella McCartney after-party might not be the best location for an existential crisis, Cook fled. “I ghosted—didn’t even say goodbye to Rachel—and went back to this apartment I always rented in the Marais [district of Paris]. I was up until five in the morning in a total panic. I was like, ‘What am I going to do for the rest of my life?’” Cook returned to L.A. depressed and confused.
One morning, on his usual trip to Intelligentsia, something unusual happened: There, among the expected trust funders, freelancers and actors, sat a group of people discussing Jesus Christ. Cook joined them and learned that the group was from a church called Reality L.A. They convinced Cook to attend their weekly church service, where Cook found himself resonating with Christianity in a way he never expected — this was the truth, he was certain. After the sermon, a prayer minister prayed over him, and Cook was born again.
“In that moment, God revealed himself to me. God was like, ‘I’m God. Jesus Christ is my son. You are now adopted into my kingdom. You’re no longer in darkness; you’re in light, and you have eternal life now. You’re an heir to me; you’re a co-heir with Christ, and you’re a royal priest and a holy nation.’ It was like the curtains parted and I knew the meaning of life. And I also knew in that moment that homosexuality was not who I was. I didn’t become straight, but I knew homosexuality was no longer a part of my life.”
Cook doesn’t consider himself “ex-gay,” nor does Reality condone any sort of conversion therapy. Rather, he practices celibacy.
“Our stance is it’s not sinful to have homosexual orientation and desire. It becomes sinful when you act on that, through masturbation or lusting or hooking up with a guy. So I’m not on Grindr,” Cook laughs. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Isn’t it unfair that you have to be single for the rest of your life?’ I’m like, ‘I have the greatest love in the world in my life: I have a relationship with Jesus Christ.’ What’s unfair is that Jesus had to be beaten and murdered and crucified for my sins. Me being single for the rest of my life, I don’t care. I’m happy to be single.”
“Do you ever miss having a love life?” I ask.
“Every once in a while I do, you know—” Cook stops as he reconsiders his answer. “I don’t know, I’m trying to think if I do once in a while miss—” Cook stops again. “I don’t actually. I don’t miss having a boyfriend. Having a relationship with Christ so overwhelms that. If my libido was at 100 percent the day before I got saved, it went down to 10 percent the day after,” Cook says with a laugh.
I find it troubling to imagine that a conflicted homosexual Christian might look at Cook and think that repressing his sexuality is easy, painless and right (especially when you consider the statistics tracking depression, anxiety, and suicide that show us it is not).
But on a personal level, what choice do I have but to believe Cook when he tells me it his celibacy came easy? My skepticism probably reveals my own prejudice: Who am I to judge this man for being celibate in the name of something in which I do not believe?
Toward the end of our conversation, we return to the subject of Cook’s born-again family. How are things now that he’s finally found Jesus?
“When I got saved, they were flabbergasted,” Cook recalls. “All of them called me hysterically bawling. They were thrilled that this happened. After my conversion, I was like, ‘We’re on the same page. I understand you. You get me.’ That alienation I used to feel just evaporated. It’s amazing.”
His conversion, however controversial it may be to some of us, speaks to the lengths people will go to find home.
Even though my teenage Christian confirmation experience left me feeling cold, my life was not without spiritual meaning—I just counted on my family to supply what God had not. The power of their love was a life force, an awesome mystery, a reason for being. My family loved me, and that love was enough to fill my heart with purpose.
That’s why, in the spring of 2014, when I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, I didn’t call on God to save me — I picked up my iPhone and dialed my family. “We’ll fly out tomorrow,” my father said, as I sobbed into my cell on the New York sidewalk outside Beth Israel, standing sentinel as busy crowds swarmed past.
Getting acquainted with your mortality is never fun, but it’s particularly miserable when you’re also dealing with the worst breakup of your life. One month prior to my cancer diagnosis, I celebrated my 30th birthday by moving in with my then-boyfriend. Two weeks later, he broke up with me. I don’t love you enough to live with you, was his excuse, and one that left me homeless, devastated, and suddenly divorced from the identity we had formed in what I wrongly assumed was lasting love.
Then came the cancer.
Then I was fired from my job.
I didn’t go through a crisis — I became one. In between finding a new apartment and a new job, I was breaking all the dishes in my ex’s apartment, crying for actual hours at a time, and sensing that the tumor in my testicle was growing daily. Again, my family was my salvation.
My parents arrived the day before my surgery, and with that came profound relief. Their love became my North Star, a fixed point from which I could rebuild the map of my identity: This is who you are. We are who you are.
The next day at the hospital, as I waited for my turn on the operating table, a nurse came to my bedside. After asking me a few routine questions, she hesitated and placed her hand on my forearm. “I’m praying for you,” she whispered.
It was not the first time a nurse had offered to pray for me; one of the biggest surprises of my cancer journey had been the number of religious hospital employees I encountered. I suppose that when faced with the most desperate human confusion, it helps to have something to point to other than a CT scan. In matters of death, science provides little comfort.
That day, as the nurse prayed for me and my family waited outside, I went into surgery. An hour and one excised tumor later, I emerged from the operating room cancer-free. The love I felt from my family afterward was unlike anything I had experienced in my life. I wouldn’t call it God, but it did save my life.
One might even say that my dependence on my family bordered on a kind of worship. In his speech “This Is Water,” David Foster Wallace points to potential problems inherent in this dynamic:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things…then you will never have enough […] Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.
I worshiped my family, assuming they were a safe existential bet. Perhaps that’s why — when it all disintegrated two years later — I felt unspeakable despair.
It’s a sweltering Saturday in Los Angeles, and I’m headed to Reality L.A.’s offices for a workshop on “authentic community.” I pull into an empty parking lot on an industrial stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard and double-check the address, sweating as I approach a weathered, two-story commercial building. I arrive at an iron-barred security door, wondering if I’m in the right place.
I climb a flight of wooden stairs to the second floor to discover a stunning room with 20-foot ceilings, exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, massive windows, and skylights that flood the space with light. The design scheme is minimalist and elegant, the furniture sparse and simple. This is where Reality’s 30-person staff works during the week.
Today’s event is at capacity. About 70 guests mill about, drinking coffee and waiting for the workshop to begin. I find an open seat next to a twentysomething Hollywood bro with beach-burnt skin, feathery blonde hair, and a wide, innocent face. It would not surprise me if he rode a longboard here. He greets me with a smile.
“This place is, like, the Instagram capital,” he says with a grin.
The audience settles as Jeremy Treat steps up to a mic. He explains that today’s event will focus on the three aspects of authentic community, as taught to us by scripture: emotions, self-awareness, and empathy. “These three aspects are essential for authentic community,” Treat explains. “We’re not talking about the surface level, ‘I have a bunch of social media friends’ community. We’re talking about the ‘I know people, they know me, and we’re doing life together’ type of authentic community.”
After a brief introduction and prayer, Treat gives the floor to today’s speakers. The church’s gospel care director takes the stage to lead everyone in a group exercise that’s designed to help us practice authentic community. The gospel care director is in her early-thirties, her caring face framed by a hip, loosely curled bob. A light denim jacket hangs on her thin frame, stretching almost to the floor. Staff members circulate the room with stacks of papers as she addresses her audience with a comforting alto lilt.
“We’re passing out an emotional words worksheet. At the top are seven main categories of emotions. And below those categories are different words for emotions, ranked by severity. I want to encourage you to take three minutes and circle some of the emotions that you felt in the last 24 hours.”
I look down at the handout in my lap: There are 125 words listed for negative emotions (choices range from lonesome to ashamed to defiled) and 25 words listed for positive emotions (the selection includes satisfied, overjoyed and ecstatic). There is quite literally more space for suffering than joy.
“This can be an important tool to learn vocabulary,” she continues. “A dear friend of mine has laminated one of these and actually carries it with her because she wants to grow by learning this vocabulary.”
I imagine the gospel care director’s friend pulling her laminated vocab list from her purse every day, poring over the sheet in search of the right word. How would she, when faced with 125 suggestions for sadness and 25 options for joy, choose to define her experience?
I choose pessimistic, worn out, depressed, and anxious. In truth, I had a pleasant morning at home with my boyfriend: We stayed in bed and opened our French doors to let in the morning air. But now, faced with the sheet and its sea of negative suggestions, my mind returns to familiar anxieties about work, family, and future.
“What we’re going to do now is practice emotional awareness, self-awareness, and empathy through reflective listening,” the gospel care director says. “If you flip over to the other side of your emotional words handout, you’ll find instructions for today.”
At her direction, we break into groups of three for a kind of active-listening exercise. At first, the instructions seem basic, almost infantile. I’ve had plenty of conversations in my life. Do I really need to practice?
After a round of bashful introductions, my teammates and I take turns opening up about some of our deepest anxieties, fears, and disappointments. We all listen and attempt to simply hear one another without passing judgement or interjecting. By the end of the exercise, I’m convinced that this practice should be mandatory for all residents of Los Angeles — a town where so many conversations are driven by ego, money or hidden agendas.
Instinctually, throughout our exchange, I made certain to avoid the issue of my sexuality. I have no doubt that my team would have been open and empathetic in their listening, should I have broached the subject. Sin, after all, is a part of everyone’s life — and on the finite space of our emotional worksheets, there were one hundred and twenty five words to help me explain my feelings about it. But if I had to pick an emotional word to express my sexuality, I would choose one of the scarce, joyful alternatives: proud.
Language is an essential part of any faith. For Christians, the Bible is the crucial text, but all religions use words in an attempt to give form to something enormous and incorporeal. Though growing up in the church failed to inspire a belief in Christ within me, it did imbue a deep-seated faith in something else: storytelling. This devotion to narrative, this reverence for words would eventually lead to my decision to become a writer. Every Sunday, my parents would take the pulpit and tell stories. These stories were from the Bible, or popular culture, or moments in our family itself. They were designed to provide a framework for spiritual understanding and shine a light on the question of existence. When my mother or father chose to tell a story from our family life in a sermon, I felt a thrill of recognition from the pew: The story of my family matters.
At the start of 2015, a few months after my cancer operation, I left my entire life in New York behind, moving to Los Angeles for a fresh start. Establishing a whole new identity in an unfamiliar city was an extremely difficult and painful endeavor, but throughout it all, I had my mother, father, and sister to lean on. I’d based my entire existence on the story of our family, and I knew that even as everything else in my life dramatically shifted, I could count on this story to ground me.
During that first, tumultuous year in Los Angeles, I leaned heavily on my family for support. Then, in November 2016, I received a phone call from my mother that changed everything. Her voice was strange — something was wrong. She had news; we conferenced in my sister.
“Your father wants a divorce,” my mother said.
I was shocked. Our family was supposed to be different; we were going to be the rare unit that stuck together—no divided holidays or awkward weddings for us. Suddenly, my faith in our family’s story shattered. I felt unmoored — my identity was rooted in fiction.
In January 2017, as my family disintegrated, I pitched a television show. I’d spent more than a year developing this particular series with my writing partner, a brutal process that involved many producers, countless hours of work, and unmeasurable quantities of the most frequently exploited resources in Hollywood: heart and soul. This is it, our agents, managers, and friends all told us. This is the one that’s gonna go.
Meanwhile, I was depressed, in therapy for the first time in my life, and struggling with the most foundational aspects of my identity. But in each pitch meeting, I turned it on — I was the brightest, wittiest version of a person who was secretly crumbling. It will all be worth it in the end, I told myself. I would sell this show, and the resulting validation would act as buttress to my collapsing sense of self; where my family had failed, my career would succeed. In the end, I would be fine — if I could just fix the narrative of my life.
We pitched a total of nine networks. All of them passed.
I plunged deeper into depression and anxiety. The stories I had told myself for so long were failing. It was around this time that I first made contact with Pastor Jeremy Treat with the inquiry to profile his church. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in retrospect it’s clear: I was searching for a new story, one that could save me.
“When you follow Jesus, you get a new heart, a new mission, a new identity, a new family.” Jeremy Treat stands onstage at the Hollywood Palladium, preaching to an audience of 4,000 Christians, assembled here today for Reality L.A.’s massive Easter service. In a week, the Palladium will host a Lil’ Wayne concert, but today it is the temporary home of Reality L.A. The church’s band, supersized for the Easter service, plays softly, underscoring behind Treat as he speaks.
“What are you basing your life on? Is it money, success, satisfaction in a perfect relationship? How does that hold up over time? What’s gonna happen when your career fails, when the money runs out, when your body breaks down? To be a Christian means to base your life on Jesus. And He is the only one who will never let you down, because He gives you meaning that suffering can’t take. He gives you joy that is not dependent on circumstances and an identity that is unshakable.”
Treat presents a ready-made identity, perfect for those who feel lost. In the months leading up to this service, I spoke with failed actors, drug addicts, and burned-out rock musicians who all found Jesus at the lowest point in their lives, when they had lost the narrative of their own existence. Jesus quite literally saved them by giving them a new story in which to believe. I marvel at how strange this must feel, to release the individual anxieties of a self forged by will and give up responsibility to a larger collective entity. Yet I can’t help but wonder: What would it be like to surrender?
“There’s a variety of ways we’re going to respond [to God] during this time,” Treat says. “And a big part of that today is responding with baptisms.”
Baptisms are the grand finale of the annual Easter service. Treat explains that some members have been preparing for an entire year to become baptized, but others might simply be inspired by today’s service to surrender their lives to Christ. There are, he assures us, towels for everyone.
The band, which has been playing soft and low under Treat’s call to baptism, crescendos. A spotlight hits a large black tank, filled with water, on the right side of the stage. A couple in their late twenties stand in the tank, ready to baptize today’s volunteers. The two are stunning — he with a prime-time jaw, she with perfect Keri Russell curls — and with the swell of the pop-rock score, the whole thing feels like something produced by the CW. The first person approaches the tank — a lanky-handsome black man — and our couple help him in as the band reaches a thrilling climax. A giant screen behind them projects the baptism, a live feed for the thousands assembled. The band sings:
Now death where is your sting?
Our resurrected King,
has rendered you defeated.
The couple take the young man into their arms and swiftly submerge him in the water. A sudden Super Bowl cheer erupts from the crowd, and I jump in surprise. The audience goes wild as the couple lift the man from the tank, wiping water from his beaming face.
The entire service has been leading to this moment. One by one, people approach the tank, the beautiful couple baptize them, and it’s all projected on the jumbotron for the thousands assembled. Some are somber as they’re submerged, others are giggly and nervous, still others tremble with emotion. A heavyset white woman emerges from the water sobbing and throws her arms around the neck of the man in the tank. She heaves and shudders into his shoulder, and in this moment I understand how a baptism could save your life. How nice it would be to surrender to the rhythms of the band, the promises of the sermon, the embrace of the handsome couple, the call of the water. How profoundly moving to surface to the sound of 4,000 people cheering for you, for this new chapter in your life where Christ will save you from yourself.
And yet there is also an innocence here that I can’t access, a belief that once you come back up, drenched and gasping for air, that life will suddenly make sense, that the weight of death will be lifted, that you will have the answer to literally every question. Ultimately, to be born again is to surrender something else entirely: your sense of mystery and wonder. This is something I could never do.
So why am I weeping?
I meet Jeremy Treat at Stamp Proper Foods, a hip and casual café with lots of vegan options. Treat knows every employee by name and greets each one with genuine warmth.
“This place is like my Cheers,” he explains as we sit.
Today is our final meeting, and after spending months learning the story of Treat’s church, I am interested in hearing about Treat himself.
“A lot of my story is shaped by my dad’s story,” Treat tells me. “My dad describes his childhood as a living hell. His father was physically, sexually, verbally abusive to everyone in his family. Eventually my dad’s mom committed suicide, and then my dad’s sister committed suicide, and my dad’s father basically drank himself to death. By the time he was 21, everyone else was gone. My dad is literally the only physical survivor of his family. I say it defines my story a lot, because he was a great dad to me and still is. He gave me and my two brothers and sister everything he ever had.”
Treat’s father spent their childhood building a church in the remote fishing town of Kenai, Alaska. What started as a simple construction job soon transitioned to a way of life when Treat’s father fell in love with the town’s small religious community. As he built the church, he also built his family — and the two became intertwined. As a result, the church was quite literally the foundation of Treat’s childhood. I find myself unexpectedly moved by the parallels with my own life and my childhood defined by church and family.
“When do I get to ask you questions?” Treat asks with a smile when he finishes speaking. “I want to hear your story.”
I joke with Treat that my story isn’t usually on the menu when it comes to my reporting. But it is clear, as Treat’s eyes lock with mine, that he cares about it. It contains the keys to my soul, something Jeremy Treat would like to save. My soul has also been on my mind a lot lately, and that’s why, despite my skepticism, I find myself telling my story to Treat, starting at the beginning.
I tell him about growing up within the church and finding my identity in my family. I tell him about coming out to my parents, feeling that their love was the most powerful force in my life, believing that our family was invincible to destruction. I tell him about my cancer, and how my family’s love gave me the will to recover. I tell him about the divorce, the devastation I felt, the shock of learning that my parents are fully human and not perfect avatars of familial love. I tell him how disconcerting it was to learn this not as a child, but at 32 years old, when my ideas of family were fully formed. I tell him how I failed to buttress my crumbling identity through my career as a screenwriter, and how Hollywood is just as cliché in its brutality as you expected, but more painful than you ever imagined. I tell him how sometimes I wake up in the morning and momentarily forget that my family has fallen apart, how I am devastated anew when reality comes rushing in. I tell him about how I wonder who I am in the context of this brokenness.
And I tell him all this even though I don’t believe in God or Jesus or heaven. I don’t believe one book has all the answers; I don’t believe that I have to stop being gay to achieve enlightenment; I don’t believe that abortion is a sin; I don’t believe that sex before marriage will cause my ruination. But despite all this, I still feel compelled to open up my entire life for Treat to examine, in the hopes that somewhere within that story there will be an answer: This is who you are; this is why you are.
“This is what life is about: people, stories, learning about each other,” Treat says as I finish speaking. “There’s a lot of beauty in hearing your path.”
And this ultimately makes perfect sense to me; it always has. I have long believed in the value of a story, something imbued in me since I first heard my parents preach from the pulpit. But stories also fail us — and what then? That’s something I haven’t figured out yet. And maybe that’s why, when Treat asks if he can pray for me at the end of our meeting, I agree.
“Pray for my family,” I say, before heading back into the lonely crush of Los Angeles traffic and a world filled with questions.
LA based writer, with work in VICE, W Magazine, OUT Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Broadly, MEL Magazine, Refinery29 and more. www.jonathan-p-r.com
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